From his earliest work, it was clear that Robert Palmer was an artist of rare musicality. But nothing in his early days, from the Alan Bown Set, via jazz-rock fusionists DaDa to Vinegar Joe, could quite have prepared anyone for the sonic sophistication and soulfulness of his 1974 solo debut for Island Records, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley.
Any one of the 14 studio albums made by Palmer before his untimely passing at the age of 54 in 2003 is deserving of a new appreciation. But Sneakin’ Sally deserves special attention because it was the first time we really got to hear his alluring blend of R&B, reggae, and rock influences, and his uncommon skill both as a creator and interpreter of great subtlety.
The album laid bare Palmer’s love of the particular kind of soul that emanated from New Orleans, notably from the pen and the piano of Allen Toussaint. It was his song that gave the LP its title, as one of two covers, also including the haunting “From A Whisper To A Scream.” The “bottom end” of the record’s terrific sound was supplied by another of the great acts who had emerged from the Crescent City a few years earlier, the Meters. British players like Jim Mullen and Simon Phillips also contributed.
Robert was equally taken with the slinky, soulful rock that was emerging at the time by Los Angeles hipsters Little Feat, and their frontman Lowell George. His song “Sailing Shoes,” the title track of the band’s second album from 1972, became the lead number on Palmer’s debut. Furthermore, George himself played guitar on the cover, and on four other tracks from the set. “I got a phone call,” George told Melody Maker in 1975, ‘Hey, how would you like to come to New Orleans and make an album with the Meters’ so I went down and made Robert Palmer’s album with Allen Toussaint.”
But the album also announced Palmer as a fine writer himself, with four new songs and a co-write with George on “Blackmail.” The closing track, “Through It All There’s You,” was a hypnotic, 12-minute treat featuring electric piano by his Island labelmate Steve Winwood.
It would not be until his third album Some People Can Do What They Like that Palmer would begin to make even modest inroads on the British audience, but Sneakin’ Sally found some favour in America, reaching No. 107 in a 15-week run.